“Pssst! Wanna become a wiseman? Just in time for Christmas? Then step into my office.” Well maybe it’s not quite that simple. Picking up a Rolex knock-off or a pirated CD or two, perhaps. But wisdom has to be earned, acquired, built slowly — so that just about the time we retire, don the fluorescent orange vest, and start offering our hard fought knowledge to the kids at the school crossing (if they’ll listen), we get it! Right? Those would be the polarities, the extremes of the process, I suppose. A fake beard and some hokey robes from a guy in an alleyway or a lifetime of careful study and training.
A recent book by Steven Hall (Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience) takes a valiant stab at trying to quantify and define (from a ‘hard science’ perspective) this sprawling and ephemeral quality. And, apropos this blog, comes up with some surprising and gratifying parallels with mindfulness practice.
Hall notes that historically wisdom has been associated with age — specifically, the older we get, the wiser we get (or are perceived to be). That would be right up to the point where we start leaving on the stove burners and showing up in the driveway of the house we lived in two moves ago — and calling it home. The image of the ‘old crone’ as wise woman, the sage as the beaded elder, community wise man are the usual associations. Last time I checked, the image of an adolescent in a hoodie with jeans slung just below his hipbones may convey ‘street smart’ — but not particularly wise. In the 1950’s psychologist Erik Erikson did his bit to entrench this view of old as wise with his eight-stage developmental chart; identifying the final stage (typically commencing in his view at about age 65) as one of ‘ego integrity’ and, when successfully engaged, producing feelings of wisdom in the individual. (The downside of Erikson’s stage was despair, regret, and bitterness — the stereotypic ‘grumpy old man’.)
Where Hall’s discussion caught my particular interest, however, was more in his cataloguing of the behavioral traits associated with wisdom. I was immediately struck by the overlap in his list with features generally associated with mindfulness, making it much more than an ‘old person’s game’: emotional regulation (even-handedness), patience, dealing with uncertainty, tolerance of other perspectives, acceptance of diversity, ability to judge without being judgmental, capacity to ‘reset’ after exposure to adversity, altruism (operating outside the ‘ego’). And the list goes on.
The concept of emotional regulation and our ‘characteristic’ response to challenge deserves some elaboration. Marsha Linehan, a psychologist best known for her work with a very ‘challenging’ disorder, Borderline Personality, immediately came to mind with her formulation of the ‘wise mind‘. She conceives of this ‘place’ as the overlap of two polarities in the individual: the emotional mind and the reasonable mind. Emotional reactivity (typically seen as highly volatile, variable, impulsive, and changing responses to frustrating or angering situations) — and essentially the ‘opposite’ of emotional regulation — is a central problem for the borderline. Accordingly, Linehan employs a number of mindfulness techniques that allow one to reconcile these two very different ‘states of mind’; the one (reasonable), the cooler, logical, planful side of thinking; the other (emotional), the ‘feeling aspect’, and albeit the one that kicks quickly into gear, often without the pause for considering consequences, etc. The resultant ‘blending’ or balancing of these two states (achieved through mindfulness practice) is very strongly, even in Linehan’s terminology, associated with wisdom.
A second aspect of the wise person that Hall underscores is the capacity to ‘reset’. This one too echoes a very central psychological application of mindfulness, highlighted in the recent work of Zindal Segal and his colleagues as they too use mindfulness training and practice to address another potentially debilitating state: depression. Segal’s approach emphasizes the importance of gaining control of ‘automatic thinking’, noticing when one is being pulled into ‘mindless’ routines and accordingly setting off on a train ride that sees one participating in and being victimized by one’s failure to, again, pause and consider — far down the track before awareness occurs (if it ever does). The wise person, conversely, notices this process early on, makes a choice (dependent on the need of the context, not reflexively or automatically), and is able to experience the event (often one involving some kind of undesirable or adverse elements) and pull himself back — essentially restoring order, balance (vs. careening down the track).
Finally Hall makes a strong case for practice. Citing the work of Richard Davidson with experienced meditators, hard-wired data (i.e., changes in types of actual brain activity) support the contention that regular practice essentially builds a wise mind. By regularly ‘rehearsing’ and applying principles that form the core of mindfulness technique (bolded above), the ‘wise mind’ develops over time — right down to supporting brain structure. So essentially wisdom does (or can) vary with age — but we have to nurture it. It evidently doesn’t happen on its own. And it certainly doesn’t ‘magically’ appear — just because we’re getting older (or grow a beard!).
Link to audio of blog:
Link to audio of blog: